The National Weather Service in Bismarck has been keeping weather records since the late 1800s.
“So far, from Jan. 1 up until now, this is the driest year on record,” said Zachary Hargrove, National Weather Service meteorologist.
The most recent U.S. Drought Monitor moved a small portion of central North Dakota, mostly along the Missouri River in Burleigh, Morton and Oliver counties, into the severe drought designation. More than half of North Dakota, confined to the western part of the state, is considered in moderate drought, while abnormally dry conditions have begun to spread into eastern portions of the state.
North Dakota is not alone in the region. A portion of western South Dakota is in moderate drought, as is a strip running diagonally from central Minnesota to the northeast. Southeastern Montana has a chunk of land in moderate drought, while southwestern parts of that state have a mix of moderate and severe drought.
After an abnormally wet fall in 2019, Hargrove said an abnormally dry winter “spilled over into the spring and summer.” Summer is, on average, the area’s wettest season, he said, and it’s too early to tell if the dry pattern will continue through the season.
The North Dakota State University Extension Service warns that the damage may already have been done for cattle producers.
"The state was fortunate to receive above-normal precipitation last fall, creating ample subsoil moisture for great spring green-up and pasture growth," said Miranda Meehan, NDSU Extension livestock environmental stewardship specialist. "However, due to the current dry conditions, forage production will start to decline at an expected rate of 30% or greater, with production declining even further if conditions persist. Just as important, if conditions stay dry, plants will mature and become rank, decreasing the quality of feed for much of the grazing season."
Kevin Sedivec, NDSU Extension rangeland management specialist, says July 1 is an important date for cattle producers to keep in mind.
"By July 1, 80% of forage has been produced on most range and pasturelands, with the exception being areas dominated by warm-season grasses. After July 1, precipitation on cool-season-dominated grasslands will enhance forage quality but will have little impact on production,” he said.
Late-season precipitation won’t help increase forage production significantly, so Meehan said producers should consider making stocking rate changes now to prevent overgrazing.
Another date to keep in mind is Sept. 1, as warm-season grasses will have produced the majority of their forage by then.
Hargrove said the National Weather Service forecast shows a more active pattern emerging, but that can mean heavy rains in one place while somewhere 20 miles away remains “bone dry.”
“We could turn this around any week now. We’re hoping that is going to take place now in the next couple of weeks,” he said. “The one good thing about all of our agriculture producers in the state is they understand how much of a whirlwind North Dakota weather can be. It changes on a dime.”